For years, fans of biomechanical tattooing have been traveling all the way out to Yucaipa to get work done by one of the best in the world.
Although there aren’t many shops in Yucaipa, Roman Abrego’s Artistic Element Tattoo has quickly become a global destination. Although known primarily for his biomechanical work, Abrego is also a world-class artist when it comes to color realism — they're both styles that many tattooers don’t dare touch.
Solid biomech tattoos involve an extremely high level of detail and precision as well as knowledge of the human anatomy. They’re the ones that make the tattooed area look mechanical (in case you couldn’t tell based on the name alone), and the smallest imperfections can easily ruin an entire sleeve.
Now, you won’t always have to spend an hour or two heading east on the 10 to get top-notch biomech work. Abrego is taking full control over his second shop (Artistic Element Tattoo II) in Hollywood, and he’s already figured out how to manage both.
“There’s a loft [at the Hollywood shop] where I can stay whenever I’m tattooing here,” Abrego says. “I like coming out here, but I hate the drive. When I’m at this location, I’ll be here for at least a few days at a time.”
Running one shop can be challenging enough for an artist, but it’s a labor of love for Abrego. He opened the second location in March 2012, and in January 2015, when he won a $20,000 award for his entry into a Rockstar Energy Drink can art contest, he was able to bring the space up to his standards.
After adding about $100,000 of his own money, Abrego finally had a pair of shops he was proud to call his own.
But Abrego wasn’t always in a position to drop six figures on creating an impeccable tattoo shop. The famously mohawked tattooer got into art at a very young age by drawing designs that meant something to him — like the all-important Ninja Turtles — with his artistic grandfather, but he gave it up as a teenager. Abrego then spent about three years in jail, and it was there that he began drawing again, and even where he tattooed for the first time.
“I could just focus everything on [the art] and fine-tune everything,” Abrego says. “I was never really formally taught, I was just [tattooing] in my house after I got out. I just started working and working to get better.”
While some home-based tattooers will just work from their kitchen table, Abrego had a semi-professional sanitary station set up in his place. His work got to the point where people took notice, so the young tattooer found himself working at Empire Tattoo Studios in Riverside in no time. From there, Abrego landed a job at Tried N True Tattoo in Moreno Valley, and that’s where his tattoo education really began to take off.
“I basically threw my old portfolio away and just started fresh,” Abrego says. “They did a lot of geometric stuff and organic stuff, so I wanted to do metal stuff. That’s when I started doing biomechanical.”
Abrego’s built the bulk of his career off of his biomechanical work, but he’s begun to take on other work as the difficult style has grown in popularity. Many young biomech artists look at Abrego’s work for inspiration and to see how their style should be done, but as much as he’s helped to expand the genre, Abrego is already looking to take it to another level.
Other artists struggle to do semi-realistic biomechanical work, but Abrego – who exclusively books full-day appointments at his shops – wants to start incorporating the level of detail and finesse in his super realistic color portraits into his biomech pieces as well.
“I always tell people I can get their whole biomechanical sleeve done in one day, because I can,” Abrego says. “But I want to try slowing it down and doing some real detailed stuff. I want to change up my style and see what I can do with it.”
Considering where biomechanical tattooing was when Abrego began his career, no one can blame him for wanting to up the ante. Fifteen years ago, biomech was virtually unheard of. With biomechanical tattoos so few and far between, Abrego would check out the style wherever he could. He’d even watch his co-worker draw engines, just to get the details down.
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“When I first got tattooed, I wanted to get my whole body done in biomechanical,” Abrego says. “There were really only a few guys doing it, like Paul Booth and Guy Aitchison, but now there are a lot of guys who are really good at it. I used to get these little books of black and gray biomechanical stuff from this guy in jail. I used to look at all his stuff, that’s where it all came from.”
As with anything, there are only so many biomechanical pieces Abrego is willing to do before he needs to work on something else. These days, the tattooer knocks out gorgeous realistic portraits on a daily basis. From Tupac to How to Train Your Dragon, German shepherds to Walking Dead zombies, it’s imperative to Abrego that he keeps doing plenty of portraits as well to keep his art fresh at all times.
“I like doing a lot of portraits too these days,” Abrego says. “I just try not to get bored with it. If I did one style all the time, I’d get bored.”
Artistic Element Tattoo II, 7460 Melrose Ave., Hollywood; (323) 782-9155, @romantattoos.